Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Jeff Skolnick, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeff Skolnick M.D., P.h.D.

Are You a Compulsive Happiness-Seeker?

Find out why most of us are barking up the wrong "happy-tree."

cake slice photo

Eastern spiritual wisdom has much to tell us on the subject of happiness — brought to you by the people who coined the term “Nirvana.” We’re talking serious happiness here.

Individuals in most of Eastern traditions who have attained the highest stages of human development possible have been able to describe how they did it in a way that can be readily separated from religious or cultural biases.

Here’s what they said. And it won’t be a surprise, because these notions have been popularized in Western cultures for decades. Yet, profound thought bears repeating — for all of us.

Happiness is a matter of definition. There is a world of difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is a sensation. A transient state. It feels good or even great. Yet, it quickly fades. You all know it: sex, coffee and other drug buzzes, being praised, winning a contest, discovering a new place, enjoying a video game.

Happiness is a trait, a characteristic or style of experiencing that lasts. It is a deeper, abiding sense of wellbeing. It is more profound than pleasurable states. Most of us do not know this trait, except in rare moments, such as feeling pride in the accomplishments of a loved one, in intense love that is not self-serving, in being absorbed in utter tranquility that feels safe and secure, in the discovery that one’s existence is profoundly significant.

Why do we bark up the tree of pleasure at the cost of happiness?

Neurophysiologically, you could say that pleasure releases high amounts of dopamine faster than happiness which can require enduring low dopamine levels before levels rise. In other words, happiness may require letting go of control over dopamine secretion.

Psychologically, you could say that pleasure is immediately reinforcing. It has a more immediate outcome than happiness, which requires a few extra steps of awareness or behavior before it can be reached.

Also getting pleasure is more straightforward than happiness. Happiness requires trust and letting go, etc. Behaviors that are not necessarily built into the survival wiring of our brain. Pleasure is a more primitive and instinctual.

Sociologically, pleasure is reinforced by popular cultures as a way to control the masses. Pleasure is powerful means of control. Happiness cannot be manipulated in that way. Economically, pleasure can be bought. Happiness cannot.

So, what is the reason we bark up the wrong tree? It is the reason that may underlie all the others: We all know what pleasure feels like. Happiness takes advanced personal development to really feel it, or a good deal of trust in other’s descriptions of it to work towards it, or a lot of luck to stumble into it. It takes time. Pleasure doesn’t.

So, what are the consequences of barking up the wrong tree? What’s so wrong with that tree? We all know the answer, but again it bears repeating.

Pleasure is addictive. It’s a bottomless pit — like an itch that cannot be scratched enough. You can scratch an itch, use sex and drugs, work for praise and try to have new experiences until you are blue in the face and never find the penultimate pleasure — which incidentally is happiness! That’s how people die from overdoses when they are addicted and from thrill-seeking that knows no end. That’s how people’s lives get ruined, by working for a level of approval, praise and respect that cannot be achieved — at least not enough to cause real happiness or to make up for the unhappiness hole that the pleasure is trying to fill.

So, if pleasure is hard-wired, easily and quickly achieved, reinforced by society and if happiness requires skill and patience and time, what hope do we have of achieving happiness?

OK, step one: recognize and remember the difference. Believe that happiness exists. Understand intellectually at least that it is the ultimate kind of “pleasure.” That it is unlike other kinds of pleasure because it is deeper and more fundamental. This knowledge will help you resist the impulse to dive into pleasure addiction.

Step two: recognize happiness when it happens. It can present more subtly at first until it builds on itself.

Step three: learn the skills of happiness-building. They are holistic skills that encompass every area of your life: physical vitality, mental wellbeing, love and social connection, competence in expressing your talents and abilities, adhering to morals and values that make the world a better place, and spiritual practices that lend themselves to wide perspectives and existential experience.

All of these practices must be informed by and focused on activating certain parts of the brain that are key to happiness. The parts that help you grasp the significance of each moment.

Vive la difference!

Learn more about this at

About the Author
Jeff Skolnick, M.D., Ph.D.

Jeff Skolnick, M.D., Ph.D., is a psychiatrist. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Washington.

More from Psychology Today

More from Jeff Skolnick M.D., P.h.D.

More from Psychology Today